China says that it has developed a laser rifle that can "carbonize" human flesh at a range of 800 m (2,625 ft), yet weighs only 3 kg (6.6 lb). In a report in the South China Morning Post, Chinese researchers say that the ZKZM-500 laser assault rifle is a fully portable "non-lethal" weapon that can burn hair, skin and signs, and even penetrate and set fire to fuel tanks.

From Flash Gordon to Star Wars, handheld laser weapons are such a staple of science fiction that an announcement that China's ZKZM Laser company has produced a laser rifle that's streets ahead of anything the rest of the world has was bound to attract attention.

According to the South China Morning Post report, which appears to be the only source, the ZKZM-500 is a "15 mm caliber" weapon (though what that means in terms of lasers is unclear) about the size of an AK-47 assault rifle. Like a US thermal laser weapon we reported on a few years back, the ZKZM-500 is designed as an anti-personnel weapon. But while its American counterpart only gives a sensation of great heat without permanent damage, the ZKZM-500 can burn through clothing and set an entire person on fire – even if aimed through a closed window.

The report goes on to say that the laser is powered by lithium ion batteries that allow it to discharge 1,000 two-second shots on a single charge, and that the company plans to mass produce the rifles at a cost of 100,000 yuan (US$15,000) per unit. However, there are concerns that the weapons might fall into the wrong hands, so it will be tightly regulated with the first ones being sold to the anti-terrorism squads of the Chinese Armed Police.

This sounds very impressive, but it also should be taken with a large grain of salt. Over half a century of developing laser weapons has left a very large stack of literature on the subject and many of the claims of the ZKZM-500 seem less than likely. For example, lasers are very bulky and solid state lasers have only been able to become as compact as they are by tightly coiling long fiber-optic cables. Even then, they are so large they need to be mounted on a truck.

In addition, they need large, complicated optics to focus the beam and a reference laser to assess and cancel out the effects of atmospheric distortion. Also, laser weapons need large cooling units to carry off the heat they generate and avoid damaging their systems.

But the biggest drawback is power. Laser weapons are notoriously inefficient and require full-blown electrical generators to work. For a laser like the ZKZM-500 to run off of lithium ion batteries, the power units would have to weigh as much as a motor car. Even if they could be made compact, they would need an energy density so large that it would be like carrying around a large bottle of nitroglycerin.

Apparently, the "less lethal" rating is because the laser rifle would, at "worst," set fire to a person, through the report does say that sustained fire would eventually cut through a human body like a laser surgical scalpel.

The developers say that the ZKZM-500 will be used for anti-terrorism and crowd control, where some targeted fire lighting of signs and clothes would be used to cause protestors to lose "the rhythms of their speech and powers of persuasion."

We researched the various businesses and institutions mentioned in the report, but no corroborating information on the laser rifle could be found.

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